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Stark raving awesome

After a red-hot $198 million opening overseas, ”Iron Man 3” is touching down on American soil; EW investigates what’s next for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, plus the rest of the Marvel Universe

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Which toy would you say is more loved? Is it the action figure that stays forever trapped inside its box, perfectly preserved for the ages but gathering dust as it sits in protective custody on a collector’s shelf? Or is it the one that gets scuffed, bent, and battered in various backyard adventures, losing its tiny accessories (and maybe a limb) before being lost — except for the awesome memories?

In the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based production offices of Marvel Studios, president Kevin Feige has decorated his office walls with a vast array of Iron Man action figures, still sealed in their bubble containers. But he hasn’t been as precious with the life-size one. The studio’s new Iron Man 3 (rated PG-13) plays so rough with its Most Valuable Superhero that some early viewers have wondered whether this might be the last solo outing for Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire playboy Tony Stark.

Iron Man 3 marks the first step in Marvel’s ambitious Phase 2 of movies, which includes this fall’s Thor: The Dark World and next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and culminates in writer-director Joss Whedon’s The Avengers 2, planned for 2015. But for the franchises to remain vital, Feige says, the heroes can’t remain static. ”There are things in this movie, in the next Thor movie, and particularly in the next Cap movie that will change the landscape between Avengers and Avengers 2. One of the amazing things in our little Marvel Studios sandbox is that filmmakers are inheriting other filmmakers’ solutions, other filmmakers’ expectations.”

While shooting what he guessed would be a particularly controversial scene for Iron Man 3‘s finale — one too spoiler-heavy to describe — Downey himself recalls asking Feige: ”’What does this mean if we wind up doing an Avengers 2?’ Kevin looked at me and said, ‘That’s Joss’ problem to solve.’ I was like, ‘Good man.’ In other words, he’s handing it off to someone who would say, ‘That’s a helluva problem, and I’m just the guy to solve it.”’

Although everyone, including Downey, expects the actor to return in some capacity for The Avengers 2, there’s no guarantee of it. As of Iron Man 3, the 48-year-old has fulfilled all his contractual obligations to play the character. Feige says Marvel is negotiating with him now for future appearances. But Iron Man 3 upends so much mythology, and closes on such a definitive note, it’s easy to see why everyone is asking: Will he be back?

”I thought we needed to do something in the third movie to make it feel like a game changer,” says director and co-writer Shane Black, who penned Lethal Weapon and directed Downey in 2005’s neo-noir cult fave Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. ”If he goes through this and then just comes out and goes, ‘Another adventure done!’ that’s great — but that’s also an episode of television.”

Iron Man 3 pits Tony Stark against his comic-book foe the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and sinister scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has a serum that can heal the human body — but with volatile side effects. Black says he was drawn to ”the eccentric-genius-gone-wrong motif” but also to the potential to reinvent the comic-book movie. ”It intrigued me,” he says, ”the idea of doing a thriller version, which was more about trying to strip Tony away from things that are superhero-esque and get him in more of a James Bond mode.”

Toward that end, the filmmakers decided to throw some punches they’d pulled previously. A version of the Mandarin was written into the first Iron Man before being cut at the last second; this movie takes that villain and adds a twist to his backstory that will surprise the uninitiated — and maybe rankle purists. The third film also allows Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Stark’s love interest, to get a turn inside the armor. (In the comics, she sometimes saves the day under the code name Rescue.)

”There was some talk in Iron Man 2 that she would get in the suit, and at one point there was this amazing [concept] drawing of her and Tony. She was in a suit with her hair blowing, and the suit had boobs and stuff,” Paltrow says. ”It was really cool.” That film was notoriously plagued by rewrites during production, so it took a third film to get Pepper suited up — minus the feminized armor. ”It’s better to be in the man’s suit because it says I can kick ass in this thing as much as any guy,” Paltrow says. ”It’s sort of the comic-book version of a Cinderella story. She starts timid and sort of cleaning up after Tony, and then she evolves into full strength and a superhero.”

Playing Stark, Downey has found his own full strength. After battling drug addiction and serving jail time years ago, he emerged as a superstar thanks in great part to 2008’s Iron Man and 2010’s Iron Man 2, which collectively grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. (Last year’s Downey-led The Avengers collected $1.5 billion all by itself.) Although pushing his own self-destruct button is no longer Downey’s thing, the temptation to push Stark’s remains irresistible to the actor. On the set of The Avengers, Downey told EW he wanted to start edging the character to a breaking point, out of fear that the man in the metal suit might become stale: ”I feel like I don’t know where you go after Iron Man 3. Leave it all on the field, you know?”

Reminded of that comment now, Downey grins. He’d rather fans worry about Iron Man’s future than complain that the franchise is tired. ”If I was sitting here and you go, ‘Dude, what happened? You lost the plot?…”’ He shakes his head. ”If we’ve earned the audience’s respect, let the currency we get from you, aside from the money you paid for your tickets, be your trust that we can still surprise you.”

Downey may be among the elder statesmen of superheroes, but he’s the first to point out that he’s also simply an elder, especially compared with Avengers costars like Thor‘s 29-year-old Chris Hemsworth. ”I’m going to be 50 in a couple years,” Downey notes. ”I caught myself the last few years losing sight of that because I work with young people and I see Hemsworth and I relate to that. But then I’m reminded, ‘He is that; you are something else.”’

One big reminder came while performing a 30-foot wire-rigged jump for Iron Man 3‘s climax. Beforehand, Downey says he was as cocky as his alter ego. ”I was like Tony: ‘Guys, we’re going to get this before lunch. Just keep the camera rolling. We’ll get a couple runs at it. Whatever you do, don’t cut.”’ Downey is notorious for keeping the cameras running to capture improvisations. This time, though, it went horribly wrong. ”I did the jump, busted my ankle,” he recalls, ”and I couldn’t even scream, I was in such pain.” He pretends to writhe in his chair, pulling at his leg and groaning. ”I look over and the camera operator is [thinking], ‘He said, ”Don’t cut,” right? This is, um, a very interesting improv he’s doing.”’ Downey strokes his beard and imitates worried crew members looking at one another. ”About a second later, I said, ‘That’s…lunch,”’ he says with a croak. ”I should have said, ‘That’s lunch…for six weeks.”’ Which is about how long production shut down while he recovered.

Regardless of Downey’s plans, Marvel, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, sees a long future for Stark. ”I believe there will be a fourth Iron Man film and a fifth and a sixth and a 10th and a 20th,” Feige says. And if Downey decides to bow out? ”I see no reason why Tony Stark can’t be as evergreen as James Bond. Or Batman, for that matter. Or Spider-Man,” Feige says. But like Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Iron Man may be one of those heroes people can only identify with a single actor. That’s Paltrow’s take. ”Personally, I think it would be very hard for someone to step into Iron Man, because it is so Robert,” she says. ”You’ve got pathos, you’ve got humor, you’ve got a facility with language and improvisation and an incredible pain underneath it all. It’s difficult to replicate that.”

Still, Downey knows he’ll have to let go eventually. ”I wasn’t involved in the planning of Marvel’s phases, and I’m sure they don’t end with me,” he says. ‘Probably one of my finest days of stewardship would be discussing the matter with whoever is cast to carry the torch. That’s what life is about.” It certainly beats staying mint-in-the-box forever.